Joshua PollackIran's Ashura Missile Mystery

[Be careful what (comments) you ask for. Geoff Forden suggests that the premise is mistaken, and the Ashura isn’t necessarily solid-fueled at all. See the comments section below.]

Say we woke up one morning, Gregor Samsa-like, to find that all the liquid-fueled ballistic missiles in the Middle East (spread around the region by good old-fashioned North Korean salesmanship for the past couple of decades) were gone, replaced by solid-fueled missiles. Would this be reason for concern?

Probably. Solid-fueled missiles accelerate more quickly than the liquid-fueled variety, raising questions about the viability of boost-phase defenses, as noted in the 2003 APS study on that subject.

They’re also safer and easier to handle than anything that needs to be filled with a toxic, flammable liquid propellant. They don’t need to be accompanied by the same fleet of support vehicles. And they don’t take the same hours to prepare for launch. So they’re even harder to spot than the ol’ Scud-type missiles, and offer less of a time window for pre-emption.

Maybe that’s stabilizing, actually. But the downside is pretty clear.

The point is, along with the hour of the cruise missile, the hour of the solid-fueled ballistic missile is now upon us, or just about. These systems go some way towards ushering in what has been called (with only some exaggeration) “push-button warfare,” negating some of the advantages of the advanced military powers.

The latest development in the Middle East’s solid-fuel revolution is Iran’s multi-stage, 2,000-km-range “Ashura” missile, announced back in November 2007 by Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Najjar. According to MDA Director Trey Obering, its appearance was surprising. He also called it “different.” Translation: nothing like that has been tested in North Korea yet.

Where Did It Come From?

Beats me. That’s one of the nice things about this format: nobody expects you to have all the answers.

Let’s consider a few possibilities, shall we?

Iran. In his lengthy review of Iran’s missile programs from 2006, Uzi Rubin mentions a May 2005 statement by Najjar’s predecessor, Ali Shamkhani, describing progress toward a “twin-engine” solid-fueled missile. Rubin seems to take seriously the idea of an indigenous development in this area. He later suggested as much to Peter Crail at Arms Control Today, although Crail also notes the Chinese background to Iran’s solid-propellant technology.

China by way of Pakistan. Others take the idea of an all-Iranian missile with a mine of salt. Norbert Brügge flatly equates the Ashura to Pakistan’s Shaheen-II, a two-stage solid-fueled missile with a range of 2,000 km, allegedly of Chinese origin. Charles Vick sees some differences (three stages for the Ashura?) but also a common heritage.

Under Pakistan, Circumstantial Evidence For, let’s file the display of the Shaheen-II at the biennial IDEAS arms show in Karachi, adorned with a “Not For Sale” sign. Contemporary reports say it first appeared there at the inaugural show, IDEAS 2002… initially without the sign 2000.

India. This 2006 article by Lee Kass hints broadly that Iran may have had access to some of the technologies associated with India’s two-stage, 2,000-km-range, solid-fueled Agni-II missile. Does he know something the rest of us don’t?

Nobody’s pointing fingers at Russia yet.

Commenters, over to you.


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    India is not a member of MTCR, and if it can be documented that the knowhow is transferred to Iran from India, it raises significant concerns.

    ACW, of all places, (surprise) have a previous post on this:

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    House Voted on Indian Deal Unaware of Iran Missile Sales

    By Dafna Linzer
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, July 29, 2006; Page A14

    “Under the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, the president is required to report to Congress periodically. The July 1 report is overdue, according to administration officials, because the State Department staff is backed up. The report identifies illicit weapons suppliers to both countries. Officials declined to identify the two companies in India selling to Iran but said both worked with missile-related technologies.


    Last year, at the height of the U.S.-India negotiations, two other Indian companies were sanctioned for supplying material to Iran’s suspected chemical weapons program. The companies have protested but remain on a sanctions list in the Federal Register.

    Last September, two Indian nuclear scientists were accused of providing Tehran with technology that could contribute to “the development of weapons of mass destruction.” The order against one was later rescinded, but the second remains banned from traveling to the United States.”

  3. ataune (History)

    If Iran is already in the stage of mastering the technology domestically (i.e. point of non-return), why should it matter where it came from ? And who tells you that once it mastered the technology, Iran will proliferate ?

  4. Geoff Forden (History)

    There is no reason to believe that the Ashura is a solid-propellant missile and every reason to believe that it is the military version of the Safir, which I discuss several posts ago, and is definitely a significant step beyond SCUD technology. When I simulate the Safir with a 1000 kg warhead instead of its clam-shell fairing, I get a range of 2,600 km, which might indicate that my assumption of a UDMH-based second stage is wrong.

    Why do people jump to the conclusion that a totally new missile exists even if it hasn’t been tested? See my discussion on just this point on the Safir.

  5. hass (History)

    Umm…how much of this stuff can be found in any decent technical library in the US?

  6. Allen Thomson

    I am as in the dark about Ashura as anyone else, but will take the opportunity to note that it’s not the only murky missile around. Both the Taepo Dong II and the longer-range Iranian ballistic missile MDA wants to defend us against are extraordinarily lacking in evidence-supported characteristics.

  7. Allen Thomson

    Geoff Forden said,

    “When I simulate the Safir with a 1000 kg warhead instead of its clam-shell fairing, I get a range of 2,600 km, which might indicate that my assumption of a UDMH-based second stage is wrong.”

    How far could you get it to go with a 500 kg warhead, either as-is or using some of the other 500 kg for more second-stage fuel?

  8. andrew koch

    actually a mock-up of the Shaheen-II first showed up in public at the first IDEAS show in 2000, with a not for sale sign. however, given that aq khan was having his centrifuge brochure circulated at the same show, and NDC was doing the same with individual dual-use missile components, i gather the signage was not all that important if you had the requisite cash.

  9. Akash (History)

    The thought of India transferring BM technology to Pakistan is fairly untenable. India has not signed the MTCR but has adhered to it in spirit and is leery of transferring weapons designs and technology to theocracies. The more interested may also note Libya’s attempts to get technology from india were also firmly rebuffed in the past, whereupon it turned to Pak. (source: Weapons of Peace, R Chengappa)

    Till date, not one Indian weapon system has been exported to Iran. All claims of “it about to occur” have till date been proven false.

    There was much ado about Indian license manufactured radars being sold to Iran. They werent.

    The case of some private firms transferring chemicals to Iran was also proven to be more smoke than fire, given that they were hardly part of the indian weapons program in any sense and didnt have any official sanction. In contrast, the Agni program and its suppliers do fall into Govt purview and audit.

    China otoh, has a fairly long record of proliferating missile technology to Pakistan and Iran. The missile which damaged an Israeli ship during the recent Lebanon conflict came to the guerillas via Iran and was of Chinese design and origin, and is license manufactured in Iran. Various other Chinese missiles and items are license manufactured by Iran as well, including anti ship missiles and ATGMs. Furthermore, China has openly transferred missiles to states such as Saudi Arabia as well. Turkey has purchased technology for shorter range ATACMS/ MBRL systems as well (see for details).

    The latest Physics today has an article on how China transferred the CHIC-4 nuclear bomb design to Pak, and the M-11 case is also well known, so Pakistan and China are much likelier sources of proliferation, unless the Iranians themselves developed the technology which is not impossible either. Especially given the Iranians have a fairly well developed arms industry.

  10. Victor

    All accusations on India which has not done any wrong and no ones point a finger towards China for all the proliferation of Nuclear weapons and missiles to fundamentalist religious regimes like Pakistan and Iran.